Employee Engagement or Corporate Brainwashing?

November 11, 2013
Last month Dave Eggers published his latest novel, The Circle. I immediately geeked out when I saw it – Eggers is not only the author of one of my most favorite books, What is the What, he’s also the founder of 826 Valencia, a fantastic San Francisco non-profit that encourages literacy skills in kids. Brilliant Ink supported the organization financially when we were still located in San Francisco, and I was even able to meet Eggers at their annual fundraising luncheon – see photographic evidence below! Liz and Dave Eggers edited The Circle is a fictitious organization that resembles some kind of Google/Facebook/Twitter mashup. The book reminds me of George Orwell’s 1984, and reads as a cautionary tale about the dangers of technology and our obsession with social media. It will make you rethink your daily Facebook habit, but as an employee engagement professional, I found another subtext that was both interesting and creepy. The book’s lead character, Mae, works at the Circle and is encouraged to share virtually every thought she has via the company’s internal social media platform. She’s pressured to boost her “PartiRank,” her social media popularity score among employees, which is visible to the whole organization. She’s encouraged to attend a myriad of social events happening on campus, and she receives a lecture from the HR team when she doesn’t show up at enough of them. The campus itself is pristine, and includes every amenity you could want. Too tired to drive home? No problem – there’s a comfortable, modern dormitory with rooms available to employees. Eventually Mae’s spending so much time at work that she decides it’s easier to just move in. Championing a comfortable work environment, providing opportunities for employees to socialize and celebrate success, and introducing social platforms to facilitate information-sharing all falls squarely in the domain of employee engagement. So where’s the line between engagement and corporate brainwashing? For the record, I am incredibly passionate about employee engagement. It’s about more than parties and making people happy – it’s about helping people find meaning in their work.  There’s a large body of research that suggests employee engagement efforts are good for employees and good for business. Companies with engaged employees have better retention rates and higher profits than those without engaged employees, and employees who are engaged with their jobs and their work, not surprisingly, tend to stay there longer. The line gets crossed when engagement becomes coercion. Requiring people to use social platforms to indicate loyalty is coercion. Pressure to attend social events is coercion. Providing corporate-sponsored housing can be viewed as supporting employees AND as coercion to work longer hours. Some of this is purely fiction, but some of it isn’t too far from reality in certain work cultures. At their core, employee engagement efforts should start with respect for the individuals that power your company. They should help employees find meaning in their work, and they should encourage personal growth and development. If we can accomplish this, loyalty and performance will follow.

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